Marti Gobel brings the characters of “Neat” to life
Most actors only have to become one, maybe two or three characters per show. In one-woman play Neat, part of Renaissance Theaterworks’ Diversity Series, Marti Gobel brings to life all 24 characters of Charlayne Woodard’s autobiographical play, in the intimate setting of the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre.
Neat is two stories dovetailed together. One is about Woodard’s aunt, Beneathea “Neat” Harris, who suffers brain damage as a baby. The other is a coming-of-age tale for Woodard, who grows from a little girl in awe of her child-like aunt to a smart-alecky teenager, emerging at last as a strong feminist embodying black pride.
She especially excels in portraying the back and forth between Charlayne and Neat, but Gobel is equally adept at shifting into other roles. As a great-grandma early on, her lithe arms perfectly cradle baby Neat. Later on, she rises to embody the deep-voiced minister describing Neat’s “holy spirit day.” And she is hilarious when she shifts to become swaggering Charles Bowman, the coolest dude on the street and Charlayne’s would-be boyfriend.
The story’s setting shifts too. Transitions from Savannah, Georgia in the mid-1940s to a Jewish neighborhood in Albany, New York are marked by subtle lighting changes and era-appropriate music.
Also packed into Neat are a mix of cultural references that brought chuckles to the opening night audience, including a reference to nickel ‘thrills,’ a popsicle-like treat sold at the corner store; Charlayne’s hair experience in swim class in junior high, and her self-styled outfit for a high school party, featuring platform shoes from Thom McAn.
Color is a critical element of Neat. Gobel often describes characters’ skin tone with vivid detail, from the “pure beautiful black” of Charles’ face, to the chocolate color of a baby’s skin. Clothing color is just as vibrantly conveyed, with Neat said to be wearing a bright yellow outfit in a church scene and Charlayne’s describing a burgundy velvet mini-dress worn for her high school party.
Mirroring the dialogue’s emphasis on color is the backdrop crafted by scenic designer Lisa Schlenker. Its dreamlike images, inspired by Southern folk artist Minnie Evans, offered a pleasing focal point to the otherwise-bare stage.
At times, the play tries to take on too much. References to South African miners and major black historical figures shoehorned into Charlayne’s narrative often make it feel more African-American History 101 and less of a memoir. Director Suzan Fete does an admirable job of keeping the pacing on track, but she still can’t keep the play’s sudden ending from seeming an unduly harsh conclusion.
Still, Neat is a thoroughly engrossing and memorable story, and Gobel gives a bravura performance that overshadows any minor concerns about rhythm or references.
Renaissance Theaterworks’ Neat runs through Feb. 5 at the Broadway Theatre Center. Tickets are $34; call (414) 291-7800 or visit the company’s website for tickets. Monday, Jan. 16 will be a Pay-What-You-Can performance at 7:30 p.m., with tickets available at the door only.
For insight into other shows coming in the next few months, check out Matthew Reddin’s spring theater guide.